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Americans are using more garlic than ever in the history of the Republic, so we’re going to talk about garlic. There are many types of garlic, but essentially they come from two big garlic families – hardneck and softneck. Maybe you’ve seen garlic braided together in a long bunch and hung over the counter in a specialty food shop or an Italian restaurant. Those are probably softneck garlics. We at Critical Pages are located where the winters are honestly cold, suitable to our grumpy temperaments and the growing of hardneck garlic.
Garlic is easy and rewarding to grow, so long as you remember to plant it in the fall. Around here, we do that around October 15th. Plant the garlic cloves about two inches deep and 6 to 8 inches apart, putting the root end down and the pointy end up. Cover them with autumn leaves or some other kind of mulch, lay a few light twigs over the leaves to keep them from blowing away, and that’s that. Some weeks later, before the hard frost, you can peek under the leaves — very carefully and only once! — and you’ll find a small green shoot has emerged. Now forget about them.
In spring the garlic will sent up a strong green shoot, up through those decaying brown leaves or mulch, and that shoot will rise through the early summer, unfurling into long leaves and eventually sending up a long scape that curls as it grows. If you want, you can cut this when it’s about 6 inches or so, when it’s tender and before it begins to curl, and it’s edible – when tender, cut it into salads, and when less tender, sautee it and toss it on pasta.
The Big Question for garlic growers is when to harvest. Around here, in mid-July the lower leaves begin to turn yellow and dry. There’s lore about precisely how many lower leaves you should see turning yellow or brown before you harvest, but at Critical Pages we’re messy gardeners and know we’re not going to be perfect, so when it’s clear the lower leaves are dying, we harvest.
Don’t harvest the garlic up by grabbing the stalk and pulling it up! And don’t cut off the leaves. Gently loosen the soil around the garlic and dig it up carefully, because at this point the bulb is delicate and easily bruised. Shake off the dirt gently, don’t wash it off; you can clean the bulb later.
Now there’s even more lore about how to cure garlic bulbs. If you go online you’ll find authorities differ but, for us, curing means laying the garlic plants — remember, you haven’t cut anything off yet — in a place where they won’t get rained on, where it’s neither hot nor cold, and arranged so that air can circulate freely around each garlic bulb. We laid ours out on a soil screen, a crosshatch wire net — you know, something that lets air pass freely, something reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections. Anything will work!
A couple of weeks will do it. You can gently remove the dirt, but washing the bulbs is asking for trouble. Store them in the cellar or some other cool shade-filled place. You’ve grown your own garlic and it’s yours to enjoy.